The Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT) programs are intended to provide F-1 students with an opportunity to gain practical training in their course of study. These programs can also provide a student with an avenue to form a relationship with an employer, who may later wish to petition for a nonimmigrant worker status for the student.

An F-1 student is only eligible to apply for CPT or OPT after he or she has been enrolled full-time in his or her’s school for at least one full academic year. To eligible for CPT and OPT, he or she must also be employed in a position that is related to their course of study.

Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

An F-1 student may only apply for CPT before graduation, while the applicant is still in their degree program. Employment under CPT is available only for a job that is an integral part of the established curriculum, so the applicant will receive academic credit for their work.

CPT can take the form of a work/study program, internship, cooperative education or any other required internship or practicum which is offered by an employer through a cooperative agreement with the student’s school.

Can Curricular Practical Training (CPT) Be Part-Time or Full-Time?

The student may work in either a part-time or full-time capacity. As long as the student maintains F-1 status, there is no limit to the duration of CPT employment. However, the student should be aware that they will not be allowed to apply for OPT if they have completed 12 months or more of full-time CPT.

How to Apply for Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

F-1 students must work with their designated school official (DSO) at their international student office to apply for CPT, as the process can be slightly different from one school to another. The student may not start working until the student is granted CPT.

Optional Practical Training (OPT)

An F-1 student is also eligible to apply for OPT both before and after graduation, through which the F-1 student may work in a part- or full-time position. Unlike CPT, the student does not need a job offer in order to apply for OPT, and the student may also change jobs during their OPT period.

F-1 students may use up to 12 months of total OPT time per degree level. Any OPT time that a student uses before graduation is deducted from the total 12 month period for that degree level. However, students with designated STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) degrees may apply for an additional 24-month extension of OPT. The additional 24 months of STEM OPT means that some F-1 students can have up to 3 years of work authorization. The degree programs that qualify for the STEM OPT extension are specified by the Department of Homeland Security and may include:

  • Actuarial science
  • Computer Science
  • Engineering & Engineering technologies
  • Life Sciences, such as biology, botany, zoology, physiology, and biochemistry, among others
  • Math
  • Military Technologies
  • Physical Sciences, such as physics, chemistry, and astronomy, among others

When Should Students Apply For Optional Practical Training (OPT)?

Students may apply for OPT up to 90 days ahead of their program end date, but no later than 60 days after their program end date. After applying for OPT, the student may not start working until they receive their employment authorization card.

OPT Grace Period

Students may remain in the US up to 60 days after completing their post-completion OPT. During this grace period, a student may prepare to leave the US, or transfer to another degree program. Keep in mind that the 12 months of OPT must be completed within 14 months of a student's program end date.

OPT & Cap-Gap Extensions

A student in OPT may qualify for a cap-gap extension, which automatically extends F-1 status and post-completion OPT for an F-1 student who is the beneficiary of a timely-filed H-1B petition. Also, students who are STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics) graduates may qualify for a STEM extension if they are working for an employer who is participating in the E-Verify Program.

OPT & Unemployment

By law, F-1 students who are taking part in OPT must report their employer’s name and any periods of employment to their Designated School Official (DSO). Students should be aware that there are strict new limits on the number of days of unemployment under OPT. These limits are as follows:

  • A student in post-completion OPT may accumulate up to 90 days of unemployment
  • If the student qualifies for a cap-gap extension, the student is still only permitted 90 days of unemployment.
  • A student who has received a STEM extension may accumulate up to 150 days of unemployment.

Every day that a student does not have employment during OPT counts as an unemployed day. However, if you are employed, regular time off is not considered unemployment (e.g. weekends off when you are employed are not unemployment). Similarly, if you travel abroad with your employer's permission while you are employed in OPT, then that time does not count as unemployment.

Post-Completion OPT & Unemployment

Students who exceed their unemployment period while on post-completion OPT are in violation of their F-1 status, unless they can show that they have: applied to continue education by a change of level or transferring to another SEVP-certified school; departed the United States; or taken action to otherwise maintain legal status.

Still Have Questions About CPT and OPT?

The specifics of each case matters a lot in terms of being compliant with the law as it relates to CPT and OPT. For answers to common questions related to CPT and OPT, read Moon Law Office’s Post-Completion OPT and Cap-Gap Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ).

While our FAQ can answer many questions related to CPT and OPT, this FAQ can’t provide legal advice that’s specific to an individual case. The laws related to CPT and OPT are complicated, and failing to be compliant with these laws could result in having to leave the United States. In these circumstances, being forced to leave the US can significantly delay or interrupt your career plans.

For specific legal advice related to your case, contact us for an initial consultation.

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